Chennai: The four-Test series between India and Australia starting on Friday features two formerly dominant sides of the past decade who are now going through a transition period. Both teams have a lot at stake and would look to demonstrate a strong showing in the first Test starting from February 22 to set the tone for the rest of the series.
England beat India 2-1 in 2012, despite losing the first Test, and showed that the hosts are no longer unbeatable in their own backyard with a host of slow bowlers. India have had a horrid last two years in Test cricket, losing eight successive matches overseas and beating only West Indies and New Zealand at home. A series win against Australia will do a world of good to their confidence and will restore some pride. On the other hand, another defeat at home threatens to besmirch their legacy and will spell an impending doom for Indian cricket.
Australia were also beaten 0-1 at home by South Africa but have fared better than India during that period. However, the recent retirements of Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey have left their middle order bereft of experience. The last time these two teams locked horns, Australia pummeled India 4-0 at home riding on the superlative performances of their skipper Michael Clarke and the fast bowlers. But conditions in India are completely different and it will take a gargantuan effort from the visitors to outclass the hosts.
Indian spinners - R Ashwin, Pragyan Ojha, Harbhajan Singh and Ravindra Jadeja - will pose a threat to a rather inexperienced Australian batting line-up.
Interestingly, the two sides are banking on different strengths to try and outdo the other. India have a substandard and largely inexperienced fast bowling attack which has been their biggest failing over the years, and thus are counting on spin. India's second-string spinners posed problems to the Australian batsmen in the two tour matches and the inexperienced team has a task at hand to exorcise the spin demons in the first Test. Barring Clarke and Shane Watson, the other batsmen have no experience of playing Tests in India and this a prominent factor which the hosts will look to capitalize on.
Harbhajan Singh confirmed in the pre-match press conference that he will play the first Test, indicating that India might go with their all three frontline spinners along with Ravindra Jadeja's left-arm spin. This isn't a rare instance as India played four spinners - Pragyan Ojha, R Ashwin, Piyush Chawla and Jadeja - in the Nagpur Test against England in December.
Harbhajan struggled against England last year, but with a good record against Australia - 90 wickets in 16 Tests - the latter could yet again prove a thorn in Australia's flesh. Additionally, the presence of left-arm spinner Ojha gives India a clear advantage.
Unlike England with Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar, Australia don't have a quality spinner in their ranks which might prove a huge deterrent. Nathan Lyon has been preferred as the solitary slow-bowling option for the Chennai Test and the offspinner will have a big role to play if Australia want to stamp a significant impact on the series. After Lyon, Australia do not have a genuine wicket-taking spinner in their XI.
Where the tourists outrank India, however, is in the fast-bowling stakes and they are going in with a clear plan. Australia will play with four pace bowlers - Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc, James Pattinson and the debutant Moises Henriques - in Chennai while India will have Ishant Sharma as their spearhead followed by one of the uncapped Ashok Dinda and Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Starc is in sparkling form of late and Siddle has been consistent for the last year; if Pattinson manages to get away without any injuries, Australia's fast bowling stock is remarkable and they'll take heart from James Anderson's superb showing in the Test series in India. Henriques was the best of the Australian seamers in the warm-up match against India A and if he gets reverse swing again he could prove a steady hand at one end with his medium pace.
What remains to be seen, however, is how much assistance Australia's battery of fast men gets from the Chepauk pitch which is renowned to be a batting paradise and help spinners from day four.
What India and Australia have in common is worries at the top of the batting. India axed Gautam Gambhir from the 15-member squad for the first two Tests and drafted in Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan while retaining an out-of-form Virender Sehwag. Vijay is most likely to get the nod over Dhawan for the first Test; Sehwag will do good to seek inspiration from his outstanding record at the venue.
David Warner is recovering from a fractured thumb and Australia have taken a gamble by including him in the playing XI for the first Test. Ed Cowan struck a fine century against South Africa last year but struggled for runs since then. Phil Hughes - set to bat at No. 3 - was ill at ease against spin in the last tour match, leaving Australia with a brittle top order. These problems on both sides leave both India and Australia reliant on their respective middle orders.
Australia: 1 David Warner, 2 Ed Cowan, 3 Phillip Hughes, 4 Shane Watson, 5 Michael Clarke (capt), 6 Matthew Wade (wk), 7 Moises Henriques, 8 Peter Siddle, 9 Mitchell Starc, 10 James Pattinson, 11 Nathan Lyon.
India (probable): 1 Virender Sehwag, 2 Murali Vijay, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Sachin Tendulkar, 5 Virat Kohli, 6 MS Dhoni (capt/wk), 7 Ravindra Jadeja, 8 Harbhajan Singh 9 Ashok Dinda/R Ashwin, 10 Ishant Sharma 11 Pragyan Ojha